My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries
Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching
Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.
THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED
Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue
The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.
Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.